Phoenix has stepped into the arena category without the songs

Phoenix vocalist Thomas Mars sings at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Sunday night. MICHAEL MORIATIS/NEWS-PRESS
Phoenix vocalist Thomas Mars sings at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Sunday night.

From one Bowl to another: French band Phoenix stopped by our fair concert venue on Sunday after a sold-out, well-received concert at the Hollywood Bowl the day before, riding high on a career that has gone from cult attention to mass appeal. This is all the more amazing considering Phoenix’s pop-rock music — which settles into push-pull, loud-soft dynamics several times during each song, buoying melody lines that turn back in on themselves instead of stretching out into sing-along choruses — has an arrangement template that varied little each song. That is to say, Phoenix has risen with songs that don’t exactly knock one over with hooks.

So put it down to their style, their musicianship and being at the right place at the right time. And hey, think about it, these guys are French! And when was the last time a French rock band ever made it big in America?

Alan Palomo pumps out the chillwave acid tunes with the rest of Neon Indian as the opening act for Phoenix.
Alan Palomo pumps out the chillwave acid tunes with the rest of Neon Indian as the opening act for Phoenix.
Lead singer Thomas Mars showed confidence, but not a lot of stage presence. The opening image, of the four central band members (Mars, Deck D’Arcy on bass, Laurent Brancowitz on guitar, and Christian Mazzalai on guitar) lit from behind by bold, white searchlights, summed up their interaction with the crowd: unknowable, hints of Kraftwerk-styled homogeny, god-like, surrounded by dry ice.

The quartet were joined by Thomas Hedlund on drums and Robin Coudert on extra keyboards, and the six made a full noise that left their sometimes twee, mellow arrangements far behind. This is a band that is now aspiring to fill stadiums, restructuring songs that were once more suited for small clubs.

In essence, that was the problem. The fans heard and sang along to songs that they know well, now kicked up several notches with the drum and bass assault. The band managed to stop and start on several dimes per song, aided and matched by a light show tuned in to their every move. “Lisztomania,” their current best-known hit, opened the show, and the band never really stopped the rock. But there was very little dynamism in this approach, and for non-fans, songs began to blend into each other. Mars’ vocal and lyrical tics pop up in nearly every song, the way he repeats a line repeats a line repeats a line repeats a line and heyyyyayyyayayayayy jumps up half an octave into the chorus (see half of the songs on their current album.) Lost in the fray: the kind of subtle harmonies and cool arrangements of their earlier work. (Part of that was due to the crumby sound mix, which submerged Mr. Mars under a few feet of bass, or jacked up the Casio-sounding keyboards high up in the mix, making them sound jagged and ghastly.)

However, Thomas Hedlund stunned with his drum work. Trebly and flat on the current album, the drums exploded into an amazing arena rock sound, with effects on the snare and tom. The syncopated beginning of “Lasso,” for example, sounded like two drummers going at it. One wishes for some three chords and the truth in front of this pounding, but even so, Mr. Hedlund provided the group with just the kind of sound they wanted.

The light show, reportedly designed by the same team that worked on Radiohead’s live tour, provided the visuals. Numerous flashing strobes, beams that seemed as strong as girders, perfectly projected lights that outlined the band’s amps and drums, which then broke into a swirl of floating angles: every song was a treat for the eyes.

The band tried a few stadium tactics that went nowhere, either by design or by mistake. At one point a huge white screen dropped in front of the stage. The band noodled a bit behind it, began to build up to something big, the screen dropped … and the band carried on. Mr. Mars, taking it easy, lay on the stage floor the whole time. Similarly, the show ended with Mr. Mars walking out into the audience with a long glowing cable attached to his microphone. That seemed to get tangled up in the pit, and suddenly there was Mars, standing by the sound booth. And then…”un, deux, trios!”…the band kinda stopped. Did we miss something?

Opening band Neon Indian is a four-piece live, but in the studio it is just Alan Palomo, who makes repetitive songs on Ableton Live digital software. In between songs the band tweaks and futzes around with effect pedals and sound samples that blend, sometimes artlessly, into the next song. They have one good song so far: “Sleep Paralysist,” all pure pop and hooks, justifying all the lush electronics at hand. Depending on the direction they choose, they might have something there.

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